07/10/2012 11:03 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

Educating for Democracy: Tenure Isn't the Problem, Poverty Is

A bill recently passed in the N.J. legislature making tenure for public school teachers more difficult to achieve illustrates a fundamental problem in the "school reform" movement that has become viral in the last decade. By making it more difficult for teachers to get the legal protections they need to prevent their being arbitrarily dismissed without due process -- which is what tenure is really meant to safeguard -- the profession is and will continue to be less attractive to college students planning to major in education. Certainly, the brightest and most dynamic will find other professions more attractive ones in which they are judged by measures that will evaluate what they can do rather than what they can't do. The quality of teachers is being increasingly measured and many of them fired based on the "success" of standardized test scores that are, to say the least, inaccurate.

1. Teachers cannot "make" students learn; they can inspire them to learn. The culture and family background that surrounds the young learner, even before he or she is old enough to enter a classroom, has at least as much of an effect on their "learning readiness" as the most innovative and dynamic teacher can give them.

Of course, there are exceptions, but if children have been discouraged and learning is demeaned by the environment in which they are raised, they have much less incentive to want to put the necessary effort into learning; learning that will stay with them so they can understand, retain, apply and innovate what is taught them and not lose most of the value of the instruction as soon as it is given to them. Teachers, tenured, or nontenured, have relatively less influence on learning outcomes than do out-of-class environmental factors.

2. Students often learn as much from each other as they do from their teacher. Intellectually active students, the "high-achievers" who have a circle of friends who are as engaged as they are in learning, are those who excel under any system of instruction. I've often told my students: "What you learn here in the classroom is the tip of the iceberg." The learning that enables the student to become a well-educated citizen comes from within themselves and among their peers, although the gifted teacher can inspire them to want to learn even more. This would be the same kind of teacher who could be denied tenure because they are more engaged in their students' learning in unconventional ways than can be measured in standardized testing. The advantages of collaborative learning in improving student instruction have been extensively reported.

But with standardized testing, collaborative learning becomes more difficult to achieve.

3. Any standardized measurement of learning is not an accurate indicator of what the student has understood, retained, applied, and innovated. Unless active learning is involved-collaborative, interdisciplinary, dynamic -- the student will soon, if not immediately, forget whatever was on a test. As one critique of standardized testing concluded:

"To improve learning and provide meaningful accountability, schools and districts cannot rely solely on standardized tests. The inherent limits of the instruments allow them only to generate information that is inadequate in both breadth and depth. Thus, states [including New Jersey]-- districts and schools must find ways to strengthen classroom assessments and to use the information that comes from these richer measures to inform the public."

4. Online learning only works for students who want to learn without being motivated to do so. The idea that online learning can be effective in getting discouraged students to become active has never been satisfactorily demonstrated despite its increasing use in public school systems. What it has done is lower the costs for running schools to the detriment of many of the students. New Jersey is one of the many states that has adopted or is in the process of adopting online learning as an acceptable substitute for live teaching.

But, as one study indicates:

"In order to successfully participate in an online program, a student must be well organized, self-motivated, and possess a high degree of time management skills in order to keep up with the pace of the course. For these reasons, online education is not appropriate for younger students (i.e. elementary or secondary school age), and other students who are dependent learners and have difficulty assuming responsibilities required by the online paradigm." (emphasis added)

5. Teaching will become a marginalized profession in which there will be few veteran teachers but many beginners who will leave teaching very quickly. Without the necessary core of veteran teachers to mentor the new ones, the wisdom and value of experience will be lost for all but the most privileged young learners. As a recent report by Robert Ingersoll and Lisa Merrill on the present demographics of teachers states:

"Teaching will become a very, very large occupation, dominated by those trained in core academic subjects and special education. Because of the large size of this occupation, teachers' salaries may likely decline in real dollars. As the field continues to balloon and the large older portion of the teaching force retires, teaching will be practiced predominantly by beginners and the young. But beginners, the largest group of the largest occupation, are also the least stable and, our analysis also shows, that instability has been increasing."

Although Governor Christie backed off in 2010 from his threat to reduce teacher pensions, the effect on veteran teachers was toxic:

"The retirement rate of teachers in New Jersey has also ballooned. The New Jersey Education Association said the number of teachers' union members whose retirement applications were submitted and approved by the pension fund almost doubled to about 7,250 in 2010 from 2009."

6. Poverty is the greatest cause of poor education. Unless poverty is seriously addressed, no amount of "reform" is going to improve our educational system, certainly not tenure "reform." Teachers, teachers' unions, parenting, and lack of choice can be used as scapegoats. But attacking them will not address the problem nor have a positive impact in giving young learners the opportunity to learn. In one of many articles tying poverty to poor education, it has been reported:

"Simple comparisons between children in poor families and children in non-poor families using national data sets indicate that poor children are more likely to do worse on indices of school achievement than non-poor children are. Poor children are twice as likely as non-poor children to have repeated a grade, to have been expelled or suspended from school, or to have dropped out of high school. They are also 1.4 times as likely to be identified as having a learning disability in elementary or high school than their non-poor counterparts. A study called "The Impact of Family Income on Child Achievement" (by Gordon Dahl and Lance Lochner) measured the consequences of growing up poor for a child's math and reading achievement: a $1,000 increase in parental income raises math test scores by 2.1 percent and reading test scores by 3.6 percent."

Governor Christie and other so-called educational reformers can try to minimize the autonomy of teachers and turn them from professionals into semi-skilled labor, but instead of solving the problems that come with improving educational quality through strategies to reduce poverty, they are merely tinkering with and damaging a complex system of learning that can be irreparably harmed. Without the minimal protection of tenure, the teaching profession will become even more unattractive to the very cohort of bright, young students that are so desperately needed in the future to educate our children, not indoctrinate them.